Roza district farmers seek security, affordability with emergency water system plan

An empty Roza Irrigation District canal from 2015.
An empty Roza Irrigation District canal from 2015. Courtesy Clay Bohlke

How much is water worth in a drought year?

Farmers agree that it depends on what you grow, as water for apples and blueberries is usually more valuable than water for corn or pasture.

But that creates a challenge for the Roza Irrigation District — which serves 72,000 acres of mostly high-value crops along the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley with junior water rights — as it mulls spending $58 million on a temporary emergency water system.

Many, but not all, of its customers want to continue with the plan.

Last month, the district’s board voted to move ahead with the ambitious, expensive project it sees as critical drought insurance for next summer, when forecasters say water supplies could be as low as 35 percent for junior irrigators.

Dozens of growers packed a board meeting this past week to criticize and support the high-stakes plan. It was a snapshot of a debate on how to value water and who should pay for what, likely to become more common in the Yakima Basin as irrigation districts look to long-term investments in water conservation and storage as part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

Roza’s idea is to install a floating pump system on the Kachess Reservoir that could pull an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir, which lies below the dam’s outlet.

There are construction and permitting hurdles to get it operational by next July.

But if it is finished, the system would boost the district’s drought-reduced supply by 15 percent and drop the reservoir 18 feet lower than normal.

At the same time, paying for the project would raise water bills an estimated $85 an acre for 10 years. That would be on top of the $138-per-acre rate the growers already pay for water. That’s worth it for many orchardists, but not for the district’s dairy farmers and row crop growers.

“I don’t need it and I don’t want to pay for it, but I don’t want to stop people who want this water from getting it,” Sunnyside dairy farmer Jason Sheehan said. “I don’t oppose sustained, long-term storage options, but I can’t afford this with the crops we grow.”

Sheehan and other growers with row crops or small farms told the board of directors they would prefer a system that allows a subset of growers to pay for the project and use the extra water, while letting them opt out. Having the option would prevent animosity between growers, Sheehan added.

The Kittitas Reclamation District had considered joining the emergency pumping project, but its growers also were divided. Instead of pursuing water for next summer, it’s looking at the possibility of setting up a local improvement district so that growers who want access to extra water in future drought years can pay for it.

Roza district manager Scott Revell said at the board meeting that district staff are researching the possibility of setting up such a system, but the complicated process would take time.

And there’s no time to spare if the pump system is going to be ready to go by July 1, said Bob King, one of the lead consultants managing the project.

The purchase of major components with a price tag over $10 million needs to be approved in coming weeks for the project to stay on its very tight schedule, King said.

The district already has spent about $650,000 on the project, according to Revell.

Dick Olsen, co-founder of the Olsen Brothers Ranches in Prosser, urged the board to follow through with the plan.

He said the extra water is critical to protecting investments in orchards and property values on the district.

“This isn’t knee-jerk; this is a wonderful plan,” Olsen said. “We’ve been having (droughts) for the 45 years I’ve been farming, and when the cash crops were sugar beets and mint, you just took a beating and cut back the next year. But now we raise apples, cherries, hops, wine grapes and blueberries, and all of these have a huge investment, so you can’t just hope for a better year next year.”

That argument did not convince other growers who said they made strategic decisions not to invest in permanent crops on land with junior water rights and shouldn’t have to pick up the cost for those that did.

“I have mint because I know we have drought years. It’s not my fault that you all planted permanent crops,” Sunnyside farmer Arnold Morton said.

Morton went on to say the uncertainty about whether the project will actually be permitted and completed in time makes him uneasy.

“Can I get a written guarantee?” he asked. “Because what do I do in the spring? Plant crops and risk losing them because we don’t get the water, or don’t plant because we are pro-rationed and then get summer water I can’t use?”

But permanent crops — for which emergency water supplies are more valuable — make up the majority of the district’s acreage.

A 2015 crop census found 26,000 acres of tree fruit, 18,000 acres of grapes, 6,800 acres of hops and 1,200 acres of blueberries. That’s in addition to 8,000 acres of corn and other row or forage crops, 3,500 acres of pasture, and another 5,000 acres that was left fallow.

However, it’s not fair to assume that all those permanent crop growers support the plan, said Paul Kilian, who has about 60 acres of juice grapes.

He said grapes use less water than orchards, and with sprinkler irrigation and creative water sharing with neighbors, his crop weathered this summer’s drought. The high price tag for this temporary project just doesn’t pencil out for him, he added.

The project is considered temporary because it is only seeking permits that allow it to operate for one drought — if it lasts one year or more. It’s possible the pump system could be used again during future droughts, but the district would then need to get new permits, officials with the Bureau of Reclamation have said.

But in the long term, the district also is seeking a permanent pump system that could tap into 200,000 acre-feet of otherwise inaccessible water during droughts. That goal is part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan — a $4 billion, 30-year effort to improve water management in the region. The projects are separate but based on the same idea.

Both are opposed by people who own homes along the reservoir, who argue by further drawing down the water, irrigators would actually be tapping into the natural lake that existed before the dam was built and would jeopardize their wells, property values, and fish and wildlife habitat.

Several Lake Kachess area homeowners also attended the board meeting, attempting to dissuade growers from supporting the project.

Bill Campbell warned that dealing with environmental impacts, such as drying up neighboring wells and harming the protected bull trout, along with likely legal challenges, would push costs up even further than the $58 million estimate.

“We’re going to fight this,” he said. “We all want your industry to thrive, but there is so much wrong with this project. It’s not a solution.”

Morton said the cost, the questions raised about unexpected costs and whether growers would be able to opt out, mean the district should put the project on hold.

But Olsen said if it gets put on hold, it won’t get done.

The district’s board — growers themselves — listened carefully to all the commentary, but didn’t take action to change course. That means the consultants will continue to find the best deals on equipment and push the permits forward until the board’s next meeting, when major purchases need to be made if the project is to continue.

Revell said after the meeting that staff would continue working on the possibility of setting up an opt-in system while the rest of the project moves forward.